In the past month or so, I’ve been watching a lot of Inside the Actor’s Studio. James Lipton really hit the jackpot with landing that job. For some reason it took me a long time to realize that ITAS really is one of the best series Bravo has ever produced, aside from the Real Housewives franchise (of course). Generally though, I love reading interviews with unique and talented people — the rawness and honesty adds an empathetic factor that you don’t usually associate with many people of status and power. With a lot of recent Ramadan down time and being ever so inspired by Mr. Lipton and his interviewees, I thought it would be fun to interview friends of mine doing unique things…
Ben Paviour. Swaggin’ since 1988. Fellow Charlottesvillian. Pisces. A neighbor (North Downtown Crew 4 Lyf). A close friend of mine growing up. We first met in Mrs. Edwards’ class in the 3rd grade, but he doesn’t remember. In 4th grade, I remember the teacher giving him the task to erase a huge detailed diagram of a penis off of the chalkboard after the girls and boys were split up to have ‘the talk’. He was too short to erase the entire thing alone. In 7th grade, my havoc-wrecking girlfriends and I once decorated his porch with candy (there may have been glitter involved?) and he threatened to throw kitty litter on us while holding a hose on the verge of bursting. He’s an extraordinary guy. Probably the most mature of all of my friends in high school. Incredibly articulate. After graduating from Wash U in St. Louis, he moved to The Mission district in San Francisco, where he wrote about some of his most bizarre experiences (some of my favs: 75 minutes in an isolation tank, online dating, craigslist pranks, Chinatown delicacies, Pagan rituals, a cougar convention, gay pride festival debauchery, attending a burlesque 101 session). He’d been itching to get out of his Oakland county office and do something new, which brought him to over to SEA where he kicked off his big trip in Laos, for our reunion — and since April, he’s been been travelling solo around the region. Now he’s in India. He’s been creating insightful 90 second videos documenting people and their culture, their traditions and how these places are succumbing and adjusting to global modernization while still staying true to their identities and traditions. The chaos and beauty of travel as seen and written with such humor and sensitivity are awesome, just awesome…( I envy him for having these experiences) did I mention he has really excellent taste in music? Check out his blawwwg: 90 Second Travel. Here’s my interview with Ben —
Elle Chang: Can you name a particular moment or place where you’ve thought to yourself ‘SHIT, I just got REALLY ripped off’? What happened?
Ben Paviour: The only one that comes to mind was a replacement mp3 player I bought in Savanahket, Laos. First mistake was buying any sort electronics in a place like that. It was a fake iPod – I knew that when I bought it – but I spent $20 and didn’t bother to try it out. It turned out to be basically unusable — its language couldn’t be changed from Lao, had a battery life of an hour, and none of my songs played. I was stuck listening to pre-loaded Lao pop songs, which is what I was trying to avoid in the first place.
EC: If you could do one place over again, where would it be, what would you change about this second visit?
BP: I’d visit the parts of Myanmar that require lots of advance planning/permits. They’ve got everything from Himalayan foothills of the far north to an untouched coastline along the southern border with Thailand that is inhabited by nomadic groups of sea pygmies. Sea pygmies!
EC: Is there any ritual that you have to do in each country you visit? (some people feel the need to buy shot glasses or some kitschy souvenir, or brave local delicacies)
BP: Basically as soon as I arrive in a new place I put my stuff in my room and start walking. I spend most of my first day or two getting a little lost, pigging out on street food, sweating buckets, and then sitting for awhile in the nearest air conditioning. My first orders of business are getting fed and getting oriented, in that order.
EC: If you could have left three things behind before you embarked on this trip, what would it have been? On the flip side, three things you wish you could have brought?
BP: My 2006 MacBook was on its last legs before I brought it to edit the travel videos I’ve been making. Now that it’s failed once and for all, it’s just a brick in my backpack until I find a place to sell it.
There’s not much I wish I brought. It’s all cheaper and more convenient to get here. Except sunscreen. You can never have too much sunscreen.
EC: Most unique cultural custom you’ve come across?
BP: I just got back from staying for almost a week at a Buddhist temple in northern Thailand. I got to participate in the rituals of the monks, including alms rounds. At 6:10 every morning except Buddha Day, I set out with a monk and novice to walk along the towns main road and collect food. It was something else to walk behind these two middle aged, barefoot white guys as they chanted blessings to locals bowed before them.
We’d come back to the temple after an hour and a half loaded with curries, breads, watermelon, soy milk, and even microwaveable hamburgers from 7-11. It felt strangely like Halloween. We’d take the food we needed for the day (the monk and novice couldn’t eat after noon) and the rest would go to kids as they left school, maybe to some of the same families that provided it in the first place.
EC: Place with the most aggressive buskers/men trying to shovel you places?
BP: I’m writing this on the plane to India, which I’m sure will take the cake. To date, Vietnam’s touts were the most relentless. In its touristy parts, I’d say I averaged 3-4 “where you are going’s?” from moot or tuk tuk drivers every block. That sentence is really the refrain of the Southeast Asia tourist circuit. It barely happened in Myanmar or outside of tourist hubs, though.
EC: A particular time/moment when you REALLY missed home? What happened?
BP: I could have teleported when I got a migraine on a bus in Vietnam, with some woman screaming at the driver, an old man screaming into his cell phone, and the driver honking at anything that moved. I ended up throwing up in my laundry bag. I thought people would notice but no one seemed to care. For some reason, a lot of people in this neck of the woods seem to throw up on buses.
Luckily, I found a nice hotel with brand new everything for $10 a night and watched the Nationals lose to the Phillies on ESPN. For some reason, whenever I’ve been away for awhile I miss baseball. At home, who cares.
But I get mildly homesick pretty frequently. Before going to Myanmar, and then again before India, I’ve second guessed myself at the airport and thought, I’m sure Yangon is nice and all, but all I really want is to eat dinner with my family or stay up late talking to roommates. Then before I know it I’m leaving the place and regretting not having more time there. But the grass is always greener…
EC: Favorite book read on trip… did it help you to connect more to your surroundings or did it serve as an escape?
BP: The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. It’s a kind of escape, in that it takes place in America and follows the mostly banal things that happen to a family there. There’s a lot of dark comedy; my favorite was the description of a depressed academic who sends his family random textbooks, wrapped in aluminum foil and those mailing address labels from charities, as Christmas presents.
EC: Words of advice to those wanting to tackle SEA or do solo-travel?
BP: Stop worrying. The hardest part of the trip was the decision to take it. As long as you’ve got a little savings — a thousand a month will buy you backpacker luxury, and less than six hundred is totally feasible in most of the region — the rest will take care of itself.
Don’t over plan from home. I just talked to an American who booked all of his connecting flights around Asia when he was still home. He’s since realized he didn’t need to fly, doesn’t like his original itinerary, and now he’s out a couple thousand dollars.
I could go on forever: live in the moment, maintain a sense of humor, blah blah blah. It’s all corny motivational poster material until you go through experiences that teach it, whether that’s travel or something else. I remember when I wrote for our high school newspaper and I was interviewing students on new years resolutions and a girl told me that hers was, “get better at doing me.” I snickered then but now I think that’s ideally what solo travel teaches.
EC: Approximate number of hours spent on public transportation?
BP: Maybe two weeks in total? I don’t mind it until around 15 hours. It’s time to take a break from all of the stimulation.
EC: Public transportation horror story?
BP: Again, India awaits. But I’ve almost been left behind by buses twice now while I take care of business. There was a bus ride I took after you and Joe left from Luang Prabang in Laos to Vang Vieng. We were stopped for two hours by cranes that seemed, for no particular reason, to be dumping dirt in the road. The radiator kept over heating, and the driver’s solution was to just pour some water on it until it happened again, 15 minutes later. Then we hit and killed a dog.
EC: Have you had one of those ‘top of the world’ moments? Where were you? Alone/with others?
BP: The first was with you all for Pi Mai in Laos. It’s one of those things that if you went back to maybe 5th or 6th grade, and said, hey, when you’re 24, you all are gonna have a reunion with these people in a country called Laos, in this giant debaucherous Buddhist water festival…
Another was the first night of a three day trek in Myanmar. The four of us stopped for the evening at this mountaintop pagoda overlooking these huge ridges. There was a sublime sunset, shooting stars, and no one around except the four smiley men who served us meals in their bamboo hut. By the morning, we were literally inside of a cloud. And then there’s all of the people I’ve met and got back in touch with on this trip, as well as locals who’ve gone to absurd ends to make me feel welcome. It’s all about the company.
EC: Top ten playlist at the moment
BP: I don’t have many songs that associate just with this trip (aside from Carly Rae, of course) but here are some I’ve been listening to recently, mostly chosen for variety:
- Skin and Bone by The Kinks
- Lawrence by Girls
- Streets Tonight by Araabmuzik
- Mistaken for Strangers by The National
- Get in the October Cart, Pig by Deadmau5
- Apocalypse dreams by Tame Impala
- The Galway Girl by Steve Earle
- This Space by Royksopp
- Moan (Trentemoller vocal remix) By Trentemoller
- Suffragette City by David Bowie
EC: Pick up any interesting local music?
BP: No, it’s really the only world music I’ve come across that’s really just unbearable. Southeast Asia loves 80s ballads about teenage lovers who don’t return each others text messages. Or at least that’s what I’ve gotten out of the music videos they blast on every bus ride.
EC: Strangest thing consumed?
BP: I had some fried flies in Laos. The texture was a little too filmy for my taste but not bad.
EC: If you were given $1,000 today, would you extend your trip or save it for your return home?
BP: It goes so much farther out here that it’s really not close. But that’s a little bit of travel bravado. If someone handed my a thou and a ticket home tomorrow I’d be very okay with that. For a week or two. Then more travel.
Many thanks to Ben, for answering all of my silly questions and typing detailed responses on his swanky new iPad. Continue to do yo thang and be safe!